In this interview, Dr Desai shares her views on the impacts of Uttarayan on the traditional built environment in the old city of Ahmedabad.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted with Ashna Patel at the university campus on January 30, 2019
Ashna Patel: Uttarayan is a festival where diverse cultural and religious groups take part. Does this make the festival a collectively owned heritage representative of the overall cultural identity of the people of the old city of Ahmedabad? If so, would it be easier for the city to safeguard the event as intangible cultural heritage considering minimum conflict of interest?
Jigna Desai: It is a collectively owned heritage, and it is easier to safeguard heritage that is valued by all. The danger, however, is that when a single festival becomes the identity of a city, its commodification also becomes unparalleled and uncontested. I think the challenge would be to safeguard the festival against extreme commodification and check its impact on how the residents relate to it and how it affects the built heritage.
AP: House owners in the old city temporarily rent out their terrace spaces for use during the festival while gaining commercial value for their heritage properties which may partially or fully cover repair and maintenance costs. Considering that it is a seasonal business, how viable is this method of fund generation to ensure the management of built heritage in the city?
JD: Expecting to raise funds for repair and maintenance of heritage properties through renting out terraces during Uttarayan is too much of pressure on one festival and has a danger of over-commodification. Every opportunity of fund generation has a limited capacity. I believe this could be a good opportunity for residents to earn some extra money from their property. For example, if a resident charges Rs 1000 to 2000 per person for half a day and their terrace can take up to 10 people at a time (this is considering the narrow accesses and standard size of terraces), it would mean revenue generation of Rs 20,000 to 40,000 in a day. That is the range. Expecting anything more than that would not be financially feasible or ethical based on the basic health and safety concerns for the houses.
AP: As a resident of Ahmedabad and a conservation practitioner, what aspects of the preparatory phases of Uttarayan, at a domestic level, do you think are in need of revitalisation or enhancement? What are the potential steps that residents can take to achieve this?
JD: This is a very tricky question. The preparatory phases of such festivities are extremely gendered. It is usually women of the house who are expected to take the burden of all preparations over weeks that will result in enjoyment for a day or two. The ‘change in lifestyle’ that we talk about is also a change in these gender roles. When women have other employments, they may not have time for such preparations, which could result in abandonment of these practices. Advocating for revitalisation and enhancement of these practices in the absence of understanding gender roles carries the danger of making the entire discourse regressive. I strongly suggest that we do not advocate such social reversal so loosely and without adequate studies. There may be possibilities of outsourcing, subletting, reframing or rethinking gender roles but those cannot and should not be loosely spoken about.
AP: What precautions can residents take to prevent damage to traditional buildings due to increase in population during Uttarayan while keeping the spaces open to visitors?
JD: Firstly, residents wishing to commercially use their houses must get permission in some form from the governing body. The governing body must check the condition of the house, its access and size to determine the limit. If food is provided, there needs to be quality checks. The governing body must ensure proper systemisation of this.
AP: People spend more time visiting food and craft stalls at the International Kite Festival than they do watching the kite flying event itself. Do such events, despite having generic agenda of promoting tourism and recreation, take Uttarayan as the underlying driver to achieve it?
JD: Yes, they do. And I do not think that this is a problem as the festival takes place outside the heritage city and does not damage any property. All of these festivals have two sides and purposes. One, as a cultural festival it has meanings in people’s lives, and, second, it serves as an identity to the city. As long as the identity does not take over day-to-day relationships, it is not an issue.